Erstwhile dial-up Internet pioneer AOL Inc. last week placed a $315 million bet on the Huffington Post. The firm that made its fortune by mailing unsolicited diskettes and CD-ROMs to millions now hopes to corner the new media marketplace with the left-wing website. Whether this investment will pay off remains an open question, but the deal is unquestionably a sign that the Internet is a thriving forum for news and opinion from all perspectives. Members of the House Commerce Committee ought to keep this in mind tomorrow as the heads of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) make their way to Capitol Hill for a grilling over the agency's meddling in online content.
In less than six years, Arianna Huffington built the Huffington Post into a significant online player. Yet government agencies like the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ignore such success stories and focus on the struggles of traditional outlets as an excuse for intervention. The FCC imposed "network neutrality" regulations and wants a return to the fairness doctrine. The FTC floated the idea of a Drudge Tax fee to be imposed on news aggregation websites. To her credit, Ms. Huffington rejected the latter scheme. "Get real, you guys. The world has changed," she told a FTC media workshop in December 2009. "This is a golden age for news consumers who can surf the Net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world and be able to comment, interact and form communities."
In its heyday, AOL drew millions onto the Internet, but it hasn't always been on the right side of the changing media landscape. Before the tech bubble burst, AOL was on top. The company's trademark "You've got mail" inspired a Tom Hanks movie by the same name that grossed a quarter-billion dollars at the box office. By 2000, AOL's coffers swelled to such a degree that the plucky upstart took a controlling interest in old-media giant Time-Warner. The resulting conglomerate at the time was worth $350 billion. By 2009, reality set in and the companies divorced, leaving to posterity an example of one of the worst business moves of all time.
There's concern that the present combination will be equally disastrous. Ms. Huffington will be handed editorial control of AOL's popular websites, including nonpolitical offerings like AutoBlog, TechCrunch and Engadget. Fans don't want to see a new AOL that stands for Arianna's Online Liberals. While this is certainly a possibility, Ms. Huffington knows how to pivot her outlook to meet the market's needs. In the past, she was a conservative darling at Republican events across Washington, her columns tilted to the right and even appeared on these pages. When she saw the opportunity to boost her celebrity by changing teams, she didn't hesitate.
Regardless of what happens with AOL, journalism will continue to thrive. As history has shown, today's media giants can easily become tomorrow's afterthought as superior alternatives meet the public's demand for accurate and balanced accounting of the day's events. The only threat to this state of affairs comes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Obama administration seems intent on turning Uncle Sam into a cyberspace traffic cop. So long as the FTC and FCC efforts are resisted, the golden age of information will continue.
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